Early Hispano History and the Iglesia de San Antonio

/ / Cultural, History

By Ruth Lambert

SJMA has begun a project to study the history of Hispano settlement along the San Juan River in Archuleta County and southeastern LaPlata County. The Hispano contributions are often unrecognized and under-appreciated yet they add a richness to our collective story.

Often at old or abandoned small settlements, the church and cemetery are the last remaining elements.  In order to learn about the early settlement in the San Juan riverine area, this project studies five Catholic churches at Pagosa Junction, Trujillo, Tiffany, Allison, and the church ruins at Juanita.  The project is assembling historical information from church records, genealogical data and interviews with knowledgeable people; collecting historical documents and photographs; and documenting the churches through field recording and photographs.

The communities of Pagosa Junction, Trujillo, and Juanita were established by Hispanos from the Tierra Amarilla and San Luis Valley areas and they developed mercantile stores, post offices, schools, mission Catholic Churches, and cemeteries.  With the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1881, railroad facilities, portable saw mills, and bridges were constructed. Although some community members were employed by the railroad and lumbering industries, the settlements remained small, isolated, and Hispano with few external influences. The hamlets persisted until the 1930s through 1950s when train service was discontinued and many residents moved away.  In La Plata County, the towns of Allison and Tiffany were initially established in 1881 as railroad stops that developed over time into farming communities.  Hispano residents moved into these settlements for railroad work and later when lands were withdrawn from settlement along the San Juan River for a future water project that became Navajo Lake.  Today, the remaining churches offer the best clues into early life along the river. The settlement of Tiffany and its church, the Iglesia de San Antonio have been the focus of recent study.

Tiffany grew from the early railroad stop in the early 1900s to establish a mercantile, expanded railroad facilities, a school, livery, and a dance hall. Ditches for irrigation and a lake were constructed to provide water for residents.

With a sizable Hispano population, the Iglesia de San Antonio, was completed in 1928 to serve local Catholic families. The building was constructed by local residents of hand-made adobe blocks that were covered by wire and stucco.  The style of the church is reminiscent of Territorial Adobe buildings that were popular in San Luis Valley, and the Rosa and the Tierra Amarilla areas of New Mexico. It is all original.

The church was operated as a mission church from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Durango and was serviced by a visiting pastor.  The church operated until 1972 when the regular weekly services for the parishioners were transferred to St. Ignatius in Ignacio. Over the church’s 91 years, it has been faithfully and lovingly cared for by local families.  Mass is held annually on St. Anthony’s feast day in June when church members attend the Spanish Mass.

In early 2019, the Iglesia was listed on Colorado’s Most Endangered Places List, only the second listing in La Plata County and the first listing to recognize the County’s Hispano heritage.  In September, the Iglesia was listed on La Plata County Register of Historic Places. 

The church is an important part of the Hispano history of our area and a priority for preservation. The next steps for church preservation are applications for grant funding for stabilization and repairs and community fund raising.  Once funds are acquired work is scheduled to begin next year.

If you have historical information to share about these churches or for additional about the Tiffany Church or this project, please contact Ruth Lambert at ruth@sjma.org.